By: Joseph Riddle ('88, '95, '97), the Alumni Relations Committee Chair
What does it mean for a CRS alumnus to be a “camper for life?” Definitions may vary, but most alumni who think it through touch on some consistent themes. Surely, if it means anything, being a camper for life means taking the lessons one learns in the Camp Rising Sun experience and applying them to one’s experience in the wider world. If we are to consider ourselves campers for life, each of us is expected to embody in our own lives those values stated in the Goals of Camp: to recognize and respect the diversity of humankind; to dedicate oneself to service of his or her community; to continue to educate oneself as a lifetime endeavor. Being a "Camper for Life" implies that each of us maintains a connection to other alumni across the globe and across the generations in terms of support for the pursuit of education, providing career information and mentoring, and being a resource for helping to ensure the viability of the CRS experience for future generations.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be profiling alumni with important class reunions coming up this summer, who we think exemplify the aspiration of being a Camper For Life. One those is Mike Saratovsky (B&G Committee, class of ‘98/’99). Mike is a construction and property management professional, working for a family firm. With his wife Jessica (school Principal of PS 770 in Crown Heights, NY) they are raising two children Kaylie, 7 and Ryan, 4. Despite their full schedules they are both committed to finding ways to give back to their communities.
Recently, I sat down with Mike to talk with him about his experience at camp, how it shaped the adult he became, and what he looks forward to about reunion weekend this summer.
Joseph Riddle (JS): Reflecting back on the years since you were a camper, what permanent changes to your life do you see as a result of your camp experience?
Mike Saratovsky (MS): I know a lot of people have a moment, often it’s after camp, where the camp experience really clicks for them. Maybe I wasn’t the typical camper because I think I “got it” while I was there. I had a lot of fights -- maybe I should say disagreements -- with [camp Director] Michael-Peter Borges. I got to have a lot of one-on-one time with him. By my second year, I think I understood where he was trying to lead us. One thing I’ll never forget was a fight I had with Mikes where he was trying to get me to act with tact (which was not my strong suit as a teenager). From that, I started to understand that there are better and worse ways to approach problems, and I decided I always wanted to do something better.
I used to sleep on the tennis court often on nights after Council, when campers could sleep anywhere, and I remember one particular conversation I had there with Jonah Wittkamper. He asked me, “What are you going to do to change the world?” I felt challenged by that. When I got back to school, I joined Amnesty International, and for a while I was gung-ho with that. In college, I realized that that wasn’t how I was going to personally make a difference. So I started doing development work for non-profits. During college, every summer I worked at a different non-profit doing development work, including working at the newly formed Trust for Jewish Philanthropy. Among the trust’s projects worked on were a Jewish communal service program targeting youth, a program to advance women professionals in the Jewish community, and an initiative to establish Jewish sleep-away camps that focused on the arts or children with disabilities. I had a lot of meaningful experiences, and that’s where I thought I was headed after college.
However, my life went in a different direction. My dad, an immigrant who came here with nothing but the American Dream 34 years ago, convinced me that if I wanted to make a difference, I would to do it from the top. I figured if I ever wanted to start my own non-profit I would need money, so eventually I went into construction, which was in my blood. I started at, WDF Inc. a union construction company, where my first project was One Bryant Park, the Bank of America building (42nd Street and 7th Avenue, a 52-floor residential tower). I came into the industry at the right time in 2004 when people were building like crazy. I came in as a paper pusher, but I worked hard and rose up quickly. After about six months I became a project manager, and that’s what I did for the next ten years until I left to join my father’s construction business. For the past 5 years I have been helping run this small business, building residential homes. We have also started developing our own properties and managing them and the their tenants.
Even in construction though, I always had a goal of doing things in a way that helped people. One of those opportunities came in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. My office was in Coney Island, which got wiped out, and my parents house is in Rockaway which also got hit hard. My house was spared the worst of it, but we were surrounded by it. The company I worked for was asked to be involved with getting heat and hot water to all the housing projects that were destroyed. That was probably November 1st, and from there until Christmas I worked non-stop, with some of the greatest plumbers I’ve ever worked with, trying to get heat and hot water into these buildings. For two months I was walking up and down these buildings: giving people water, talking to older people, volunteering at local churches, helping to gather used sneakers and clothing for people who had lost everything. I could have done all of that for free and been happy. I remember leaving my Thanksgiving dinner and going up to check on a crew of plumbers who had worked all through the weekend, missing their own family events. It’s still one of the things I’m most proud of.
A lot of that was because of camp, but also because of my family. My parents came here with no money and were expecting with my brother, but my dad who worked 7 days a week, never refused to help someone. I will forever be thankful for the organizations that helped them immigrate and make a life here. I believe that when you help people, it makes them more likely to help other people.
JR: What prompted you to start to devote some of that energy back to LAJF and to become involved with the Buildings & Grounds committee?
MS: My only real involvement with LAJF after camp was retreat/reunions. Back then we didn’t have Facebook, and it wasn’t like you could just hop online and be friends with everyone. I didn’t stay in touch with camp people other than the ones I went to high school with. But I would always go to the yearly reunion in New York City, and occasionally up to the summer reunion weekend at camp.
It was at one of those summer events -- I think about five or six years ago -- that Judy Fox and Nita Luis approached me about joining the B&G, because they knew I was in construction. It was at a time when the community was becoming aware of the financial problems with the foundation. It was an inspiring reunion weekend -- I remember that you spoke about your camp experience, and I was moved by your talk. I gradually went from thinking of camp as just a fun place to hang out occasionally to reflecting on how much camp means to me and being inspired to do something to help sustain it. I’ve been committed ever since.
JR: Thank you for that compliment! It means a lot to hear it. As you think about your upcoming 20 year reunion, what are your thoughts on the ongoing legacy of LAJF. What do you foresee for the next 20 years?
MS: I really hope some of the other ‘98 campers come to the reunion. It is a fun weekend of connecting and hanging out. You know, I think with reunions sometimes people think, “well, I follow so many people on Facebook there’s no reason to go,” but it’s a totally different experience to be back there on that land, with the memories and the people who share those memories with you.
I feel like this is a good time to be involved with camp. I’ve been very involved since just after the New Dawn (I’m glad we’ve moved on from that) and I’m excited about the way things have moved. The last board meeting was excellent. With the reconstruction work we’re doing at Clinton, while expensive, it’s nice to see that the patchwork has stopped and to see that we’re planning for the next hundred years of camp. When I came to my first B&G meeting, it was pretty upsetting. We sat around talking about maybe raising the roof on the girls gymnasium, and some other ideas. I asked, “where’s the maintenance manual? Where is the list of prioritized projects?” And the answer was, well those don’t exist. There was no budget. We would just put together a list of wishes and hope that some of it happens.
It’s good to see that we’re now looking at facilities management the way we should. We’ve got a physical camp to manage, and the educational camp to manage, while the kids are there. But they both need to be managed, you can't just do one or the other. At some point we have to stop looking just one or two years down the road and look at the next hundred years.
JR: And what do you want to tell people about the state of Red Hook?
MS: Do you have an hour? I could really wax poetic about what that place means to me. A couple of times during college I drove to camp just to have some peace sitting by Louise Falls. There’s still a beauty and wildness there, which for a kid from the city is a unique experience. I’m a bit of a realist about Red Hook right at this moment, and my main goal is to see the facilities preserved and repurposed for ongoing use and eventual reopening. We’ve just redone the roof on the Old House and ED Hall. And we’re trying to utilize the property as much as we can. During the summers the campers get to use the trails and the land and the council ring, which I think are its best features. As for the future… who knows what can happen with the right management and planning? We are on the right path.
JR: And that’s probably a good place to close. Mike, on behalf of our community I thank you for the work you’ve done and are doing for camp. You were a vocal critic of the New Dawn plan, and (speaking for myself) I think a lot of your criticisms were heard. I’d like to thank you for your ongoing active participation -- both in offering critical feedback, and in offering support when it’s been warranted. How how!